Recognizing and Using
Fr. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR
In an article published in First Things, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles reflected on Saint John Paul II’s concept of the "Law of the Gift":
This essay will explore recognizing the law of the gift as one’s own giftedness, and utilizing those unique gifts and talents in service to God and others. "Your Giftedness" is a companion piece to a previous essay I wrote entitled "Your Created Goodness" which focuses on discovering and embracing one’s personal self-worth as being valued. Appreciating the value of one’s personal goodness and self-worth provides the framework whereby we become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others…as fashioned in the image of the divine.
A Scriptural foundation for the law of the gift can be found in the First Letter of Peter (4:10 NIV): "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms."
At this point, it might be a good time to consider these questions, "Have you ever given much thought concerning the gifts and talents with which God has blessed you?" Or, how to serve others faithfully? Or what is meant by God’s grace in its various forms?
The Random House Webster’s Dictionary defines varied as "diverse, different, variety." God’s grace then is diverse and different; it is not identical for each person. Each person’s unique gifts and talents are just that, they are unique and varied. They are not equal or the same for each person, though they may appear to be somewhat similar.
In my 30 years experience of working with college students, it seems that too many men and women develop a type of narcissistic, spiritual navel-gazing, that is, they try to compare oneself against someone else, as if being superior or inferior to another. Usually, they start by looking to those on their proverbial left, thus they feel inadequate, or less than by comparison. Yet, when they look toward their proverbial right they feel so superior, or a sense of being better than that person.
The problem is, as I see it, that comparisons can only be made with what is similar, i.e., types of apples. You cannot compare that which is unique, defined in the Random House Webster’s Dictionary as "existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics. Having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable."
Each man’s or woman’s gifts and talents are not meant to be in competition with one another, but they are to be complementary, those abilities needed to complete the whole…that is to build up the Body of Christ (c.f., 1 Cor. 12:4-31 NAB).
Talents emerge and wane
In addition, looking back over the years, I’ve become aware that about every ten years, or so, new gifts or talents begin to emerge, while others may begin to wane or subside. Likewise, as I venture into my later years, I’ve discovered "senior" talents, or abilities, that I had no idea existed as a possibility when I was in my 20s and 30s.
Let’s look at what is meant when we refer to someone as having gifts and talents? They are a special, often creative natural ability or aptitude…a special ability. Some examples include the gift or talent for art, music, sports, compassion, dramatic arts, leadership, teaching, cooking, kindness, and a plentitude of others. As well, just as every virtue has a vice, or defect, so too, every gift and talent has a "dark side," a defect, or its temptation, such as, deceit, dishonesty, manipulation, cheating, selfishness, and so on – a sinful side. Where one’s gifts and talents, then, are not being used in service to God and others, but to knock others down, they become self-serving, i.e., those so blinded by their successes that everything becomes, "It’s all about me!"
Listen to St. Paul exhorting his young protégé Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6-7 NIV), "For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline."
"To fan into flame" is like poking among the ashes in a fire-pit to find a glowing ember so you can reignite the morning fire. It’s as if St. Paul speaks to us through Timothy, "I’m reminding you to stir up the ashes off the God-given gifts and talents that already are within you. You have within you a spirit of power, not of cowardice or timidity."
Have you ever experienced how in beginning to develop a particular gift or talent, there is an initial fervor, or surge of energy, but then things become difficult, one gets distracted and slows down or discontinues altogether? Too often we get stuck in the starting blocks and never get any farther. Don’t be a coward, a timid spirit, "fan into flame" the power of God’s spirit within you.
Filled with a spirit of empowerment, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed:
What potential powers of creativity, or talents, are waiting within you? For each one of us, we "have a duty to work assiduously to discover these powers," to fan them into flame with whatever gift and talent God has blessed you. Do you have an awareness of your potential powers of creativity, and what your mission in your life might be? This is a good question to reflect upon about every five years.
A personal time of spiritual awakening, a conversion journey, started in my mid-20s. I began reading the Bible as a personal encounter with God’s Word in my life. You might call it a "surprised by grace" moment, but one day, as I was reading a passage from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:11, 13, 15-18 RSV), the text seemed to read me – definitely an "aha" moment. Often such verses are referred to as power verses – a personal encounter with God’s Word – one that can change everything. That Thessalonians verse reads:
That’s a power verse! And it has been a profound influence for my life ever since. This verse has provided me with an understanding of meaning and purpose; guided me with a sense of mission and ministry – to encourage one another…build one another up. Can you tell me who doesn’t need to experience encouragement, or being built up? Where can you not encourage someone, or build them up? Looking back, it wasn’t so much that I found the gift, as it found me. It is true that when you start seeking, searching and knocking, then you will have a better chance to find what you are looking for, even when you don’t know what it might look like.
However, once a person discovers a gift or talent that is when it starts to become more challenging, that is, to develop the gift or talent so that it bears abundant fruit. Often, it is a struggle, or as Dr. King proclaimed, we have a duty to work assiduously…And "assiduous" by definition means: constant; unremitting… working diligently at a task; persevering; industrious…
Difficulties and struggles, by the way, are normal in life, especially when arduously working to develop one’s gifts and talents; bringing them to the fullness of their abilities. To be good at anything in life requires unremitting perseverance and self-discipline regardless of whatever hardships, difficulties or struggles one might encounter.
Let me provide a couple of sports analogies that illustrate this point:
Likewise, men and women need to throw deep in developing their gifts and talents; to use them to their fullest and not waste my days.
Magnanimity - the "lost virtue"
It was a personal epiphany moment when I discovered that this concept to throw deep actually refers to the virtue of magnanimity. Magnanimity is the "lost virtue" for which I had unconsciously been searching. Somehow I never heard of magnanimity as a virtue. I first came across magnanimity as a virtue in a December 19, 2007 ZENIT.org interview with author Alexandre Havard on "‘Virtuous Leadership’ for Everyone." And, then, over the next four months I read several other works that each featured magnanimity as a virtue of excellence.
While performing a Google search on the topic of "magnanimity" I came across a paper written by Dr. Rebecca DeYoung that complements Saint John Paul II’s "Law of the Gift" – We become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others.
Dr. DeYoung writes:
A metaphor for discovering one’s gift and talent might be described as finding a geode in the desert. Initially, from the outside, gifts and talents seemingly appear very rough, and not much to look at, like the exterior of a geode. A geode, first, has to be cut open to expose the crystalline interior; next it has to be ground down, and finally buffed up and polished to make it shine brilliantly. This process is similar to developing one’s gifts or talents, a lot of hard work is required to make them sparkle. The self-discipline in training and practice initially breaks one down; then repetition of proper technique builds one up, until the gift or talent is honed into excellence. And it may take years to mature a gift or talent to the point of bearing abundant fruit, whether it is a 30-, 60-, or 100-fold seed.
St. Paul in the "Letter to the Romans" (Rm. 12: 4–13 NIV) writes:
Every man and woman has a duty to grow one’s different gifts and talents, each into its fullness, and exercise them in contributing to the needs of others. How do you exercise your God-given talents to encourage others, to build them up, to magnify God’s glory in your daily living?
A dire warning, though, is pointed out in St. Matthew’s the "Parable of the Talents" (Mt. 25:24–29 NIV) about burying one’s gifts and talents, especially when it is done out of fear or intimidation. We read:
Pope Benedict XVI in his weekly Angelus address (November 13, 2011) reflected on this parable…"With this parable Jesus wanted to teach his disciples to make good use of their gifts: God calls every person and offers talents to all, at the same time entrusting each one with a mission to carry out. It would be foolish to presume that these gifts are an entitlement, just as failing to use them would mean failing to achieve one's purpose in life."
The vice, or defect, of magnanimity is known as pusillanimity – the fear-filled defect of the fainthearted that causes men and women to bury their gifts and talents. Those with a pusillanimous spirit, it seems, cringe from their own greatness more than from their own littleness. They are more afraid to let their own light shine than they are of the darkness looming around them. They are content with becoming less than the man or woman God created him or her to become – living more abundantly. In short, the pusillanimous man or woman denies the world their own unique gifts and talents; they leave this world a little bit less than it is supposed to be.
"Law of the gift"
There is a tremendous need for men and women to "throw deep" in life, to encourage the faint-hearted, to strengthen timid spirits. This is the "law of the gift" when we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others. Let me illustrate this point:
This observation has special significance for parents, teachers, coaches, and for all those in ministry. Discover the unique individual differences in those with whom you come in contact that often go unnoticed and unappreciated. They need to be recognized, appreciated, and encouraged.
I wonder if you have ever given much thought to how easily we label people in our daily conversations? Labeling people is something most of us do without even giving it a conscious thought. Often, we label even ourself. But does this labeling encourage others, does it build them up? How about making a conscious effort to label others according to their gifts or their talents, labeling them by a virtue that they manifest in their life? Words are powerful, they can build up, and words can tear down; they can embolden a timid spirit, or snuff out a flickering flame. Intentionally, use your words to label the positive, affirming gifts and talents in others. Doing so just might be all the encouragement, empowerment and validation that a man or a woman will need to embrace the fullness of their gifts and talents.
There is a great lesson to learn from this teacher’s experience of a positive exercise of labeling:
What an enduring influence Sr. Helen’s simple exercise had on her students. It reminds me of a similar type of labeling exercise that occurred while on a staff retreat when I was working in a university student life setting. We were given a set of file folder labels, one for each member in the group; we were asked to write down the virtue or gift each person most manifested. After some time to reflect, we went to each person and placed the label on their upper arm telling that person why we chose that particular "label" which we saw reflected in them. It was enlightening to overhear people’s comments on why they chose a particular "label" for someone, and interesting to listen to some people’s responses to that choice. Yes, I still have my list, the "labels" colleagues identified with me. They are helpful in reminding me often of what others saw in me; they help "snap me back" when I forget, or drift, settling for being less than I could be.
"Your Giftedness" is a recognition that each man and woman has God-given unique gifts and talents that are to be used to their abundance. As Saint John Paul II exhorted, We become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others.
So in closing: